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Sophia Burset is a trans woman who is incarcerated at Litchfield Penitentiary and she is currently in Maximum Security. She is also an upcoming main character of the sixth season. She previously worked as one of the prison's hairstylists, until she was sent to the SHU and Maria Ruiz's group took over her salon as a place to deal drugs. She is portrayed by actress Laverne Cox. She is based on Vanessa Robinson from Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.
Sophia is a friendly person in general, and finds joy from her job in the salon. Beauty related activities seem to be the main way she passes her time in prison.
Her relationships with family, colleagues, and other inmates are often complicated because she is a transgender woman. Her son is resentful and angry about her decision to transition; her wife Crystal is supportive but frustrated by the treatment she receives from her own family and community because of that support; the sexual relationship between her and her wife is strained and complicated; and the other inmates directly insult, commit many microaggressions towards, and even commit hate crimes directed towards her.
Despite her difficulties with transphobia, she is even tempered and tries not to let the insults get to her. This is shown in her generally upbeat attitude and kindness towards others. She does not even truly retaliate until she is in danger. Even when she does fight back, she yells “Leave me alone!” instead of anything verbally abusive. Anger does not seem to be her coping mechanism in dealing with frustrations from the outside world.
Much of her criminal history has been shaped by her desire to win over her son’s love after he becomes deeply upset by Sophia’s choice to transition. She values her job as parent and provider - even resorting to fraud when it becomes necessary. Her inability to provide and care for her son is a large source of guilt.
Having grown up biologically male and experienced male privilege for most of her life, Sophia is revealed to have some misogynistic views. She encourages her son to find an insecure girl to have sex with so he can “practice” sex. Classism also seems to be a subtle part of her outlook. She assumes Benny is responsible for a fight that involved her son simply because he is from a less privileged neighborhood.
Sophia is 6'0" tall and wears a light chestnut wig. She is always done up nicely and wears lipstick.
Before LitchfieldFor a list of episodes featuring Sophia's flashbacks, see here.
Before transitioning, Sophia was a firefighter named Marcus and was married to Crystal, with whom she had a son, Michael. To pay for her sex-reassignment operations, she stole credit cards, boosting them to finance her surgeries. Throughout the entire process, her unknowing wife stuck by her, but Michael had difficulty accepting that his biological father was transgender and decided to get back at her by informing the police of her crime.
Sophia is first seen in "I Wasn't Ready", where she compliments Piper's hair and tells her to come by Sophia's salon when she needs her roots doing. In "Tit Punch", Piper manages to trade some of Sophia's shea butter for a lock of her own hair, which Sophia weaves into Taystee's hair. The shea butter is one of the ingredients that Piper uses to create a painkilling balm for Red's back, thus ending her starvation punishment for insulting Red's food.
Sophia has to contend with being the only trans woman in the prison and bearing the brunt of all the transphobia directed at her by both inmates and staff.
Sophia appears to have an ongoing rivalry with Danita, who also runs a hair salon at Litchfield, but has only been mentioned so far.
It's revealed that she had been in Litchfield for two years prior to Season Two. As of "Fucksgiving", she has three years and eight months of her sentence left.
Sophia applied for furlough when her father had a lung transplant that didn't take. Sophia had a very distant relationship with her father after her transition, but when he started dying, he began to accept her and even called her his daughter ("Appropriately Sized Pots").
Throughout much of the season Sophia and Gloria feel and share the helplessness that comes with being a mother behind bars, and Gloria asks Sophia if Crystal can give her son, Benny, rides up to the prison with her Michael. Shortly after, Michael starts swearing, acting belligerently and getting into fights, which causes Sophia to blame his actions on Benny being a bad influence. Angered, Sophia retracts the offer to give Benny rides to the prison. It's later revealed that the bad behavior was Michael's doing, not Benny's, which just causes tempers to flare even more between Sophia and Gloria. A verbal altercation in the bathroom culminates with Sophia shoving Gloria into a wall, which gives her a black eye. Sophia appears to be genuinely sorry, but does not apologize to Gloria either for the shove or for the fact that she was wrong about the situation between Michael and Benny. Their fight leads to Aleida spreading transphobic rumors about Sophia, causing Sophia's salon to be boycotted and leading to her being harassed and attacked by a number of inmates. Gloria is seen to be remorseful about the situation and is angry at Aleida's actions.
Due to the situation, Sophia threatens to sue Litchfield for low security and control. This blows up in her face, however, when she is sent to the SHU for "her own protection". This is ordered by MCC, not Caputo, who sees the unfairness of the situation and tries his best to get Sophia out of the SHU, but is unsuccessful.
At the end of Season Three, Sophia is still in the SHU being treated exactly like the other inmates, despite the fact that she is ostensibly there for "protection".
Sophia is seen still in the SHU, having had her wig taken from her.
Crystal finds out that Sophia is in the SHU indefinitely after Mendoza asks her son to go over to Crystal Burset's house and tell Michael to relay the situation to his mother. Crystal heads over to Litchfield to try and get Sophia out by talking to Caputo but is not successful.
After Caputo ignores Sophia's requests to review the decision of her being in SHU, Sophia stages a protest by stuffing her clothing down the toilet to clog it up and flood out her cell. When this doesn't work, she breaks the light bulb, holds up a toilet roll to ignite it from the electrical current, and uses it to light her cell on fire, resulting in all the inmates getting evacuated from SHU temporarily ("Doctor Psycho").
Nichols, who is on cleaning duty in Max and the SHU, recognizes Sophia's voice while cleaning the hallways and opens up the face latch to say hello. She passes on a magazine to Sophia to keep her entertained.
The next day, while cleaning, a guard tells Nichols to clean the cell that Sophia was in. When she gets to the cell, it is empty and there is copious amounts of blood all over the cell walls and floor, looking like suicide.
In "Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull" Sister Ingalls, who has deliberately caused herself to be locked up in SHU to try and contact Sophia, realizes that Sophia is in a cell on the opposite end. She sends a folded letter of support to Sophia by sliding a note across the floor from door to door, in a zigzag pattern, until it reaches cell B12. Sophia picks up the note with heavily bandaged wrists and almost healed wounds on her face and smiles when reading the note.
In "The Animals", Sophia returns from the SHU. As she walks through the prison, she passes her old salon and sees that Ruiz's crew has taken over for their drug distribution business. There is transphobic abuse scrawled on the salon's sign.
Later on Sophia returns to obtain a brush, but only continues to look inside the salon in silence. Gloria Mendoza walks into the salon and orders Ruiz's gang out. Sophia enters and sits in a chair. She gives Gloria her wig, which Gloria takes, brushes, and puts it back on Sophia's head.
In episode 1, Riot FOMO, Gloria brings Humps, who has been shot by Daya, into Sophia's hair salon, asking for help. Sophia tells him she used to be a firefighter and is trained in emergency aid, but Humps responds with attitude and transphobia. Gloria begs Sophia to help him anyway, for her, not for him, and Sophia reluctantly agrees. The two women attempt to stop the bleeding, but eventually are forced to bring him to Medical, where everyone has fled except for one nurse. He agrees to help and Gloria offers to assist him, with Humps and any other patients saying "I used to be a fireman- a firefighter."
Throughout the beginning of the season she can be seen in scenes taking place in medical, helping out Nurse Adarsh wherever she can. However in episode four, Litchfield's Got Talent, an elderly woman she's helping in medical compares her to Sister Ingalls. The nurse finds her walking down the dark hallway with a flashlight and she tells him she's leaving, going to find her friend. He tells her the fate of a large black person coming out of the dark wasn't very promising, but she insists.
Once outside, she is taken to Max (or SHU?) where she meets the person down the hall from her during her time in the SHU. Sophia asks her if she saw Sister, and she replies by telling her not on her way in, but on her way out. Sophia is confused and the girl clarifies that Sister Ingalls got pneumonia and was given compassionate release. Sophia starts laughing, and it's the last we see of her this season.
- Crystal Burset (wife) - Crystal and Sophia married before Sophia came out as transgender. Crystal supported her though her transition but their relationship was never the same because she was attracted to men only. Sometime after Sophia's incarceration, Crystal begins to date her pastor, although her and Sophia are still legally married. Sophia eventually gives them her blessing.
- Sister Ingalls (best friend) - Sophia befriends Sister in an attempt to get her hormones after her own are taken away, but when this request is denied the two become close friends. When Sophia was put in SHU "for her own protection" in season 4, Sister Ingalls was the loudest in demanding answers from the prison.
- Gloria Mendoza (beginning of S3, then enemy, then friend once more as of "The Animals")
- Piper Chapman
- Poussey Washington
- Janae Watson
- Black Cindy
- Adarsh (S5) - Because of her training in emergency medicine, Sophia stays in Medical for the beginning of the season, helping Adarsh with patients.
- Aleida Diaz
- Gloria Mendoza (former) - When their sons begin to spend time with each other, Sophia blames Benny for Michael's misbehavior and refuses to allow Crystal to contiue giving Benny a ride to see Gloria.
- Blanca Flores (transphobic insults)
- Reema Pell (transphobic attacks)
- Sophia's character is based on a real transgender inmate in Piper Kerman's book named Vanessa, however Kerman changed her name to Vanessa to protect her identity.
- Pre-transition Sophia (Marcus) was played by Laverne Cox's twin brother M. Lamar. When it came time to film the pre-transition scenes, Laverne offered to do it, despite its possibly triggering nature, but was unable to look convincingly the part. The show's creators joked that they needed a trans actress with an identical twin brother who could do it, which turned out to fit Laverne Cox and M. Lamar perfectly.
- "You have some fucked up priorities."
- — Sophia Burset
- "I can take good care of you... but even if you don't go to me, don't go to Danita! She will burn the shit out of your scalp."
- — Sophia Burset
- "Human beings aren't supposed to live like this."
- — Sophia Burset
- "Holy shit. I look hot."
- — Sophia Burset
- "I don't do sausage on my breakfast sandwich."
- — Sophia Burset
- "I knew them bitches was lying when they said you left here looking like Omar from The Wire."
- — Sophia Burset
- "'Please' is for commissary hoes and Oliver Twist."
- — Sophia Burset
- "If I would've seen him, I don't know, may have felt like closure. But we don't get a lot of that in this life now, do we."
- — Sophia Burset